In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot solves the stabbing murder of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The victim is killed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express, and the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car. One of those passengers is Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, a formidable elderly lady whose strength is in her personality. At one point in the story, she has this to say:
‘‘I believe…in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’’
She’s not alone. Being loyal to the members of one’s group is a highly-valued trait, and that makes sense if you think about it. People depend on other group members for a lot, including, at times, survival. So, it’s important that groups stick together, as the saying goes. And there are sometimes very severe penalties for breaking that rule. Loyalty matters, but it can sometimes go too far, and that can make for an interesting layer of character development in a crime novel. It can also allow for plot points.
For example, one of the cardinal rules of the Mafia and of other criminal groups is what the Mafia has called omerta – silence. Every member is expected to keep quiet about the group’s activities, or about anyone else who might be involved. That’s how one proves loyalty to the group. We see that, for instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from the US to a small town in Normandy. The four settle in and begin the process of getting used to an entirely new culture. But all is not as it seems. ‘Fred Blake’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against his fellow mobsters in court. Now, he and his family are in the US Witness Protection Program, and have been resettled in Normandy for their own protection. The plan is successful enough, until word of the Manzini family’s whereabouts accidentally gets back to New Jersey. Now, Manzini could very well pay a terrible price for his disloyalty.
Police officers depend on each other, sometimes for their lives. That’s one reason why there’s such a premium placed on loyalty to other officers. In many cases, that’s part of the ‘glue’ that holds the force together. But this loyalty, too, can be taken too far. In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, for instance, we are introduced to Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police. One afternoon, he is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him, he takes probationer Lucy Howard. They’re investigating at the house when White is stabbed to death. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who already has a history with local law enforcement. The other officers are loyal to White, and want to mete out their own kind of justice. But the media is paying very close attention to this case, and everyone knows that if they don’t do everything exactly ‘by the book,’ there’ll be a lot of trouble. It’s all complicated by the fact that Rowley is part Aboriginal. All of the police know that the least misstep on their part will lead to accusations of racism. It’s clear throughout the novel, though, that loyalty to each other and to White impacts all of their choices. There are many other crime novels, too, where loyalty to other police officers comes into play (I’m thinking, for instance, of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight). This is part of the reason for which so many police officers are biased against Internal Affairs and other internal investigation groups.
There’s also the tendency for people in elite groups to protect themselves and one another. We see this, for instance, in the work of Qiu Xiaolong. His Chief Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in Shanghai at the end of the 1990’s/beginning of the 21st Century. Chen is respected, and has an important position within his police department. However, he isn’t at the very top of the proverbial tree. That place is reserved for the elite of the Party – the High Cadre people. Those individuals make all of the important decisions, and displeasing them can lead to the end of a career, or sometimes worse. High Cadre families are loyal to each other and protect one another, and would far rather police themselves than have independent investigators look into their business. Chen is very well aware of the power the High Cadre people have, and their tendency to be loyal to their sociopolitical group. So, when his investigations lead to high places, as they often do, Chen has to move very carefully.
And then there’s family loyalty. Most of us would agree that being loyal to one’s family is a highly valued trait. In crime series such as Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels, we see this loyalty in action. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer who lives and works in Bangkok. He also happens to be very good at finding people who don’t want to be found. That’s why he’s in demand when people are looking for someone in hiding. Rafferty’s married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns an apartment cleaning company. Rose loves her husband and adopted daughter, Miaow. But she is very loyal to her family of origin. Here’s what she says about it to Rafferty:
‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’’
Of course, family loyalty can create all sorts of obstacles to criminal investigation, too. In many crime novels, people don’t want to talk to the police about their siblings/parents/cousins/etc., because those people are family members.
But that’s the thing about loyalty. Like most other human traits, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. It’s valuable to an extent, and in many situations. On the other hand, it can also be tragic.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation.